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No, disposable masks can’t be recycled at most municipal recycling centers

The EPA says disposable masks and other PPE should not be recycled in a home bin, and a conservation group estimates billions of masks will end up in the ocean.

A study from the University of Southern Denmark printed in March said there are an estimated 129 billion face masks used globally every month, which means there are 3 million masks being used per minute. Most of the masks are disposable, the study said.

A report from nonprofit marine conservation group, Oceans Asia, said the group estimates there were approximately 52 billion disposable masks manufactured in 2020.

“The 1.56 billion face masks that will likely enter our oceans in 2020 are just the tip of the iceberg,” the report said. “The 4,680 to 6,240 metric tonnes of face masks are just a small fraction of the estimated 8 to 12 million metric tonnes of plastic that enter our oceans each year.”

During the early months of 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, mask mandates were in effect in many locations across the globe, making demand for single-use or disposable masks skyrocket.

Social media posts from accounts worldwide said those disposable masks are not recyclable and need to be thrown away (see examples here, here and here). 

THE QUESTION

Are disposable masks recyclable?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, disposable masks can’t be placed in everyday curbside recycling bins. The EPA says they should be thrown in the trash. 

But some companies have found a way to repurpose disposable masks and turn them into raw materials that can then be used to make durable goods. 

WHAT WE FOUND

“When taking trips to essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies, please do not litter disinfectant wipes, masks, gloves or other PPE, instead put them securely in a trash can and follow local trash and Center for Disease Control guidelines,” the EPA said.

The EPA provided these tips for properly disposing of PPE, including those single-use or disposable face masks. 

  • Check with your local recycling hauler to see what materials they accept right now and recycle what you can from your home.
  • Break down shipping and food boxes, rinse out containers and cans, keep them dry and clean, and put them in your curbside bin to be recycled.
  • Keep disinfectant wipes, gloves, masks, other PPE and medical waste out of recycling bins.

Non-woven disposable face masks, including 3-ply surgical masks, dust masks, KN95 and N95 masks, are plastic-based but feel like a fabric. According to the EPA, in 2018 - the last year the data was measured - 26,970 tons of plastics were landfilled, and 3,090 tons were recycled. This statistic includes all plastics wasted, not only PPE. 

David Biderman, the executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), told VERIFY that curbside recycling programs through traditional waste management companies are only set up to process certain types of materials, and disposable masks don’t fit in that category.

SWANA is the professional association for the waste and recycling industry in both the United States and Canada, whose mission is to promote the use of solid waste as a resource and also promote safety in the waste management industry.

“Most facilities can't process garbage bags, right? Even though there's a recycling symbol on them, the chasing arrow symbol says they're recyclable. They're not recyclable curbside unless the local government has set up a special system that you need to recycle that material,” Biderman told VERIFY. “Similarly plastic masks, or, as you call them accurately disposable masks, are not appropriate for processing in a recycling center.”

According to Terracycle, a private global waste management company based in Trenton, New Jersey: “Single-use personal protective equipment (from masks to gloves, etc.) are hard to recycle in traditional recycling systems as they cost more for local recyclers to collect and process than the resulting materials are worth.”

Terracycle CEO Tom Szaky told VERIFY most municipalities avoid recycling disposable masks because of the high cost associated with the recycling process: Separating the non-woven plastic polymer material - which feels like fabric but is actually a plastic - the metal piece that keeps the mask moldable and the elastic loops that go around the ears. 

Terracycle offers a Zero Waste Box as an alternative to disposing of PPE in a trash can. Once the box is full with disposable masks, gloves or other PPE, the box gets mailed back to Terracycle and the company turns the components into durable products. 

The non-woven plastic gets ground into pellets and can be used by manufacturers to make into molded parts, the rubber from the ear loops are ground and can be used in flooring, and the metal is turned into an object that can be reused and turned into something like sheet material, Szaky said.

Nancy Wallace with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told VERIFY recycling is a challenge when one item is made of several different materials. And when an item isn’t properly disposed of, it could end up in the ocean.

“Masks should not be littered. Like any other type of trash, they need to be put in a secure trash can so they can be disposed of properly,” Wallace said. “So we want to make sure the trash can has a lid. We want to make sure things are not able to blow out those trash cans, but they should not be littered on our streets.”

Wallace said there are more masks on the beaches and in the oceans than ever seen before. The NOAA is concerned with any type of debris ending up in the oceans, but with something like a mask, the elastic loop poses an additional problem because it could entangle a bird or fish. She said masks also don’t properly break down because non-woven masks are plastic-based.

Nick Mallos with Ocean Conservancy told VERIFY that in 2020, as part of their annual International Coastal Cleanups (ICC) event, which is a global event where volunteers around the world clean up coastlines, more than 107,000 items of PPE were found. 

He said he knows this is a “gross underestimation” of the total number of PPE items found. Because of social distancing and the pandemic, the volunteer effort was about 20% of a typical year's effort.  A report from the Ocean Conservancy said 94% of survey respondents said they found PPE during the ICC event.

To help Ocean Conservancy track debris found on land near beaches, or debris found in the ocean, you can download the Clean Swell mobile app. In late July, PPE was added as a category to the app.

“There has been a definite uptick in the number of masks and gloves found floating in waterways in the ocean, and in our rivers, and one of the unfortunate consequences of this pandemic is this increase in marine litter,” Biderman said. “We need people to be smart about how they manage their waste, and that includes especially disposing of these masks and disposable gloves in the trash can. I can't, I can't pound the table on that enough because I was so distressed about it last spring, and now literally every day when I walk my dog I'm picking stuff up.”

“They’re called disposable. That’s a signal to a consumer that they’re supposed to dispose of that,” he said.

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